Afghanistan: The Taliban tango

As opposition power-brokers, including those close to India, fall over each other to accommodate a more pragmatic Taliban, New Delhi will do well to cut its losses, says Saurabh Kumar Shahi

Afghanistan: The Taliban tango

Saurabh Kumar Shahi

A few months ago, I was listening to an interview by General Austin Miller, top US Army Commander in Afghanistan. Full of inanities and jargons, a customary trait of many US officials, it appeared that I have listened to this interview earlier too. But how could that be? After all, Miller was appointed just a week ago. But I was sure I had heard jargons like “fight against the Taliban was about to take a turn” earlier too. So, I went on a streaming channel and listened to the interviews of all the 16 previous commanders of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). And lo and behold, everyone from Lt. Gen. John McColl in 2001 to Gen. John F Campbell in 2014 was swearing that the battle was about to take a turn. It did, but for the worse.

Too bad then that only a couple of months after that interview, President Trump braked-pull the steering and saved Miller from taking that “turn.” However, now that the talks between the US, the Taliban and opposition parties in Afghanistan are entering the serious phase, a ‘turn’ is in the sight, albeit of another kind.

Results from the talks in Doha and Moscow have started to precipitate. And at this point, they look promising. Taliban, who now occupy more territory than ever since 2001 and is negotiating from the position of strength, has surprisingly shown an amazing level of maturity. At least that is what sources close to this correspondent who are privy to the talks maintain.

For starters, sources say that the Taliban is “strong-willed” to end the war. While they want to have an upper hand in any incoming reconciliation government, they also realise that they cannot simply take over entire Afghanistan. Thankfully, mandarins in Islamabad, who are behind these talks, have also realised this. The Taliban realises that if it pushes for a total takeover, it will face tough resistance and then it will not only not be able to enjoy the fruits of power but will also be treated as untouchables by the international community which will also deprive it of any reconstruction funds.

And, that is not all. One of the sources privy to the talks maintained that when a female delegate from the Opposition side, Fawzia Kofie, raised the important issue of the status of women in the future government comprising the Taliban, the Taliban representatives produced a 13-point agenda that was a stark departure from how its previous government treated women. According to this fresh agenda, the Taliban has maintained that it will neither be against women studying nor be against them working. They further added that while they will now allow women to become presidents, they will not be averse to them becoming prime ministers. Although not ideal, this level of pragmatism has not been shown by the Taliban ever before.

Other areas where the delegation from both sides found common grounds included complete withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan, supporting Doha peace talks, removal of the names of the Taliban members from the UN blacklist, releasing Taliban prisoners from jails of Afghanistan and Pakistan and a formal opening of the Taliban’s political office in Doha.

Sources say that they have also agreed to meet again in the near future. While both Beijing and Tashkent have offered to host this new meeting, sources maintain that the likely venue of the next round of talks will be Kabul itself. Former President Hamid Karzai, former Vice-President Mohammad Yunus Qanooni, former Balkh Governor Atta Mohammad Noor and former Afghan envoy to Pakistan Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, who were part of the delegation to Moscow, will likely take part in the next round of talks as well.

However, the fact that China, Uzbekistan and, increasingly, Iran have shown support to this initiative means that a regional reset is on the cards. It is important to remember here that Uzbekistan, Russia and Iran were the primary promoters of the Northern Alliance apart from India. The fact that every single one of them, with the exception of India, is willing to negotiate with the Taliban means that India’s over-dependence on Trump administration is going to cost New Delhi dearly. The worst part is, stuck in the zero-sum rut with Pakistan, the mandarins in Delhi will not allow any rapprochement to happen. India had put all the eggs in the ‘Panjshiri Basket,’ and at this point, Trump appears to have sat on that.

Some MEA officials, especially those who show more pragmatism and less bravado, advocate that India should cut its losses in Afghanistan and open a channel with the Taliban by blessing these talks. However, the deeply undermined pragmatic faction of the MEA at this point does not seem to have much appetite left to take on those who have reposed more faith in the Trump administration “teaching Pakistan a lesson” than facts on the ground.

For the latter, there’s something of interest that has come up last week but was largely ignored by the Indian media. General Joseph Votel, Commander of US Central Command, was called to testify in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee this week. On the question of Pakistan, Votel said, “…as a state possessing nuclear weapons that sits at the nexus of Russian, Chinese, Indian, Iranian, and US geopolitical interests, Pakistan will always retain its importance to the US”.

When probed about Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, Votel added, “Pakistan has not taken concrete actions against the safe havens of VEOs inside its borders. Similarly, VEOs located in Afghanistan conduct attacks inside Pakistan. This cross-border instability and violence generate tension along both sides of the border.”

Read that like carefully again. This is for the first time that such a senior US commander has admitted and gave credence to Pakistani point of view that VEOs located in Afghanistan conduct attacks inside Pakistan. Naturally, Pakistanis are exhilarated. If that was not enough, the State Department’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, in an explicit statement, said that Pakistan released senior Taliban leader Mulla Baradar who is leading the talks on the request of Washington DC. This revelation and the recent visit of Russian presidential envoy on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov to Pakistan before the Moscow round have put the stamp of authority on the theory that Pakistan is in the centre of this dialogue process.

Under the circumstances, pragmatism suggests that we stop looking at our Afghanistan policy from the prism of a zero-sum game with Pakistan and cut our losses there. The window that is open now will shut permanently if we insist on opposing these dialogues and side with Ashraf Ghani and his caporegimes who are fast losing legitimacy. New Delhi had briefly cheered when Pakistan’s arch-nemesis Amarullah Saleh was brought to the helm by Ashraf Ghani, but it quickly became clear that these were the desperate attempts of a leader fast losing its hold.

That Hamid Karzai, who wakes up to more bed teas in New Delhi than in Kabul, is enthusiastically going to these dialogues should have told us the way the wind is blowing. However, it appears that even obvious hints are not obvious enough for some superspies.

In the months to come, as the talks enter the nuances phase, a more complete picture will emerge. However, at this point what looks certain is that the United States and its allies are leaving Afghanistan for good, and unless we dramatically recalibrate our thinking, all our political, economic and emotional investment in Afghanistan will go down the drain into the Amu Darya.

(The writer is visiting faculty at University of Warsaw)

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